Higher Intelligence

The National Intelligence University transforms education and culture


When Kris Young describes the transformation of the intelligence landscape throughout the past 50 years, from the Cold War to Al Qaeda, she’s also outlining the evolution of the National Intelligence University (NIU).

“Education equips the intelligence analyst for an uncertain world, and the NIU is in the business of educating the analyst for this uncertainty,” said Young, a retired Army lieutenant colonel, NIU alumna, and now a faculty member at the university.

Preparing for uncertainty is a point NIU President Rear Adm. (ret.) David Ellison hammers home when he contrasts the university’s former emphasis on tradecraft with its present mission. And when he describes NIU’s ambitious future.

“Education is an off-ramp along your career where you get a chance to step off the conveyor belt and do some stimulating, intellectual writing and reading,” said Ellison. “You get to challenge your critical thinking.”

Located within the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) at Washington, D.C.’s Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling, NIU brings together students and faculty from across the Intelligence Community and draws from the experiences of each individual.

NIU President Rear Adm. (Ret.) David Ellison envisions an ambitious future for the university. Photo credit: NIU

The military offers methods but federal agencies such as the Department of State, The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), and DIA also bring invaluable perspective to a problem, according to Army Capt. Francesca Graham, an NIU master’s degree student.

“Of these [agencies], my interaction with the Department of State is the most interesting,” Graham said. “They think about the problem, but they also think about the people.”

Elsewhere in the DIA complex is the office of Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn. Renowned for his oft-stated opinion that a lack of cultural understanding impeded military progress in Afghanistan, Flynn leads DIA, the executive agent of NIU.

“We’ve got an entire university inside the DIA that is the only university in the world that is accredited at the master’s level … for a Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmented Information master’s degree,” Flynn said, “And we will continue to invest in it.”

NIU is championed by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who, like NIU, has served the Intelligence Community for 50 years. Clapper spearheaded the transformation of the National Defense Intelligence College into the National Intelligence University two years ago.

Guided by a strategic plan built on the premise that a former military school would now serve the entire Intelligence Community, NIU’s transformation also includes an outreach program and a planned move in 2015 to Bethesda, Md., where renovations on the old NGA campus are being made to handle a full-time student body expected to grow incrementally from 250 to 325.

The current full-time student body composition is 75 percent military and 25 percent civilian, but the plan is for the ratio to be 60 percent civilian and 40 percent military when the new capacity is reached, Ellison said.

When part-time and executive students are included, the university has a total enrollment of 715. Of these non-traditional students, about 60 percent are civilian.

“Actually, we’re trying to broaden it out­—not just to the Intelligence Community…but across the government,” Clapper said. “Gen. Flynn is reaching out in a campaign to make sure that other departments in the government who have the potential in intelligence are involved with NIU.”

This outreach program, which includes media advertising targeting a wide range of government employees, describes the NIU mission as “Integrating intelligence, one student at a time.”

“It’s education, it’s research, it’s stimulating collaboration, and it’s integration,” Ellison said of NIU’s role. “Director Clapper is always talking about integration. That’s his big thing. And collaboration is a big component.”

To reinforce outreach, Clapper announced students at General Government 11—a category often used in the Intelligence Community—or above on the federal government pay scale can receive civilian joint duty credit for attending NIU, a two-for-one career boost that adds to the degrees available.

It’s a step to make the university more inclusive of civilians. While the military allows time for schooling as part of an intelligence career path, federal agencies find it more difficult to replace a valued employee for a year to attend NIU.

The university is also working to become more valuable to civilians, both with education and the integration and collaboration that are part of Clapper’s mantra about a whole-of-government approach to intelligence.

Part of Ellison’s vision for the next five years is to improve NIU’s 8-to-1 student-to-faculty ratio to 4-to-1 and foster faculty research. Half of the faculty hold doctoral degrees.

“Right now…each faculty is overseeing eight to 10 theses each year,” Ellison said. “They’re teaching their courses and doing education, but most of their research time has to be spent working with students’ theses projects, as opposed to their own research.”

Add to that a burgeoning demand for executive-level certificates—NIU has eight programs, with more being developed—and the university’s satellite education offerings, and the plate becomes that much fuller. NIU has a campus at RAF Molesworth, UK, to serve EUCOM and AFRICOM, as well as one in Tampa, Fla., to support SOUTHCOM, CENTCOM, and SOCOM. And NIU is working with the FBI to set up a facility at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va.

NIU is also examining the possibility of adding a cyber program. The university has reached out to industry and academia to add parts beyond what could be an NIU cyber intelligence degree.

Some see the transformations taking place at NIU as a way to begin dismantling intelligence stovepipes by exposing students to each other’s work after they have learned their own organizations’ intelligence cultures.

“I think what you’ll see over time is the same thing that’s happening in the military,” Ellison said. “We’ll know we’re successful when the deputy at FBI calls the deputy over at CIA and says, ‘Hey, classmate, I need help.’ That’s what we’re striving for.”

It’s the next step in the evolution of intelligence.

Featured image: The National Intelligence University is within the Defense Intelligence Agency building at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling in Washington, D.C. Photo credit: NIU

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